Navigating the Murky Waters of Body Positivity, Thin-Privilege and Eating Disorder Recovery: Part One
August 23, 2017
(Disclaimer: This post is long and imperfect)
Before I start it might be helpful to understand that...
I’m biracial (half Asian and half Caucasian).
I’ve never been bullied
I’m a mompreneur (a mother + entrepreneur) and a wife
I work as a Pilates instructor, Yoga teacher and personal trainer.
I’m in my 10th year of eating disorder recovery.
I exist in a thin-privileged body
I work to end size discrimination, promote fat acceptance and the body positive movement.
The last 3 are where things get messy and what I’m writing about today.
The question is can these 3 things coexist?
I’ve been told it’s a little weird that someone in my body size and my line of work would be promoting fat acceptance and body positivity but up until a few months ago I believed this to be totally doable. But now I’m not quite sure.
I’ll do my best to explain.
A very brief history of the Body Positive Movement (as far as I’ve read and learned)
The body positive movement came from the fat-acceptance movement and this came from the feminist movement. The body positive movement was created to challenge the socially acceptable definition of beauty in a time when “heroin-chic” was all over the media and the fashion industry. It was a time when the belief “you can never be too thin or too rich” was at an all-time high.
The body positive movement strives to create representation of marginalized bodies (body types not typically seen in media such as those of color, fat bodies, transgender bodies, etc.). The body positive movement coined the phrase “all bodies are good bodies” meaning regardless of size, we all deserve love, acceptance and respect; self worth is not based on one’s size, shape or appearance. (For more info on the Body Positive Movement CLICK HERE)
So What’s The Problem?
My dilemma is how do I (someone with thin-privilege and a history an eating disorder) exist, participate in, speak out with, and actively support the body positive movement in a way where I’m not being told I’m out of place, out of line and/or not wanted because of my privilege and mental health history? (Because this has happened)
“How could you be kicked out based on your body size and your eating disorder? That’s totally hypocritical” is the typical response I’ve gotten from people. And while this used to be my knee jerk reaction to being told I cannot be part of the body positive agenda, I did a little research and found out a little bit more about this thing called oppression and this helped give me some perspective, however, I feel there’s still so much more to explore. (CLICK HERE for a great explanation of oppression and the body positive movement)
Another response is, “What’s the problem? A lot of people who are thin promote the body positive movement.” (i.e. Jennifer Lawrence)
And yes, it’s true, there are many thin-privileged folks doing things and saying things in the name of body positivity. However, some of them (not all) are co-opting the movement in attempts to gain profit or advance their career in whatever nutrition, clothing line, beauty product, coaching and/or media arena they have chosen to occupy. Taking a movement like the body positive movement and manipulating its message to only improve one’s bottom line or to increase a social media following is co-opting and never cool.
And while I do run my own business and fully acknowledge that my fitness studio is promoted as a body positive fitness studio, I can honestly say that it would be so much easier if this were not the case. It would be so easy (and more financially rewarding) to intentionally use my thin-privilege to my advantage in my line of work. I could be just like the hundreds of fitness professionals in my area selling the promise of “listen to me and do what I do if you want to look like me because thin is always healthiest ” bullshit. It’s so seductive and at the same time, so against my integrity and more importantly it’s harmful to my eating disorder recovery. I created my business because it’s the only way I can work in the fitness industry (a line of work I truly love), stay true to myself and honest in my recovery.
But even as difficult and frustrating as it may be to be body positive in the fitness industry, I still benefit (unintentionally) from my thin-privilege;
I’m never told I should lose weight to be a “healthier” role model for clients.
I can order desert with collogues or other health professionals and won’t be lectured on how many calories I’m eating or that I should try making “healthier” choices.
I’m not accused of using the body positive movement just as an excuse or justification for my body size.
And because people still judge health and fitness by body size and appearance, I still occasionally get a client who wants help losing weight or to “tone up”; this, of course, is before they read my website or I tell them I can’t help them with that.
Some fitness professionals would call what I do career suicide. In an industry that defines a person’s health and value by their size and weight, most people sign up for fitness sessions or classes because they feel crappy about their body and want to lose weight. Living in Southern California where what you look light is more important than almost anything, it’s not easy to find clients that are willing to disregard all of that, trust their body, stop obsessing over the scale and simply move for the joy of moving. I’ve had to fire clients and leave studios when my belief system didn’t jive with theirs. I’ve also turned down teaching opportunities all in the name of body positivity and health at every size. I share this not for praise or sympathy but to simply show my dedication to the body positive movement and how strongly I believe in its message. I’m in it to stay for better or for worse. I’m just not sure that I’m welcome there anymore (or ever was to begin with)
Learning As I Go
To be clear, I’ve experienced a significant learning curve ever since learning about the body positive movement. Mistakes have been made along the way and I’m committed to learning and growing from them.
Here are some things I’ve picked up about thin-privilege, having an eating disorder and being body positive, as I’ve deepened my understanding of the body positive movement:
1. Having thin-privilege with an eating disorder (or a history of one) is not the same as living with thin-privilege and having poor body image.
An eating disorder is a serious and deadly mental illness. Yes, poor body image can be a part of an eating disorder, but at its core, an eating disorder is not simply about weight and food or the quest to lose weight. It’s not something that goes away by simply changing one’s mindset or throwing out beauty magazines. It can take years of work and persistence to return to a fully functioning life. At one point my eating disorder nearly cost me my life. It was a slow form of suicide by means of starvation. It was not a choice. My eating disorder bullied me and shamed me day and night. I could not escape it for almost 10 years of my life. It was pure hell. I lost so much more than weight in my battle and I still work through these regrets today. The inner battles I fought with my body were dark and brutal and because of this, I feel I have true empathy for someone facing these same demons whether they come from a mental illness or cultural accepted prejudices. I understand what it’s like to live life with intense hate for your own body.
2. But even though I’ve experienced an eating disorder and feel empathetic toward those existing in larger bodies, I still have thin privilege.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve read posts from larger bodied body positive bloggers and thought, “I could have written the same thing”. I identify with so much of what they say and write. I understand and honor their frustrations and fears and victories, however, I still exist in a thin body. This means I will not face the same oppression no matter how much I think I “get it”. And while I may not experience stigma and oppression because of the size of my body….
3. I experience stigma because of my eating disorder, which is different than oppression due to my body size.
Melissa Fabello said it best when she said “The marginalization that you experience as a person living with an eating disorder is a result of the disorder, not a result of your body.” This is a tricky concept to grasp (and believe me I still struggle with this one) because so much of the eating disorder is wrapped up in the body and maybe even comments other people have made about our body.
I fall into a different stigmatized category based on my eating disorder. It’s easy for my emotions and passion of eating disorder awareness and activism to flood over into the body positive world because many of the messages are similar. The recovery process has made the ugly voice inside my head that used to body shame and bully me reduce down to a sporadic whisper. I don’t have to deal with it’s hate-filled, incessant yelling in my mind nor anything remotely close to it from society because of my thin-privilege. For someone else living in a larger body, recovery or not, they will still face the shaming and bullying from society. Their battle is far from over once the eating disorder retreats; it’s more likely that their family members will still suggest diets, doctors may blame their weight for completely unrelated medical problems, and unwelcome suggestions from friends with good intentions of how to reduce their waist line may still be thrown into their face.
Yes, I will still experience triggering moments in my recovery but ultimately my body in recovery will not face the same oppression, shaming and scrutiny as someone larger-bodied. I fully acknowledge this.
Can I Come to Your Party?
Some things I want the larder-bodied body positive leaders to know about me and other thin-privileged folks in the eating disorder community:
The majority of us are not out to take over your space. (And this includes me) It would be nice, however, to have a seat at your table.
Yes, there are always a few people in any group that may have other intentions that do nothing more than to serve themselves and further their reputation or career, but I think I speak for the majority of us in eating disorder recovery of thin-privileged bodies when I say we do not want to take over the body positive movement. The movement focuses on putting marginalized bodies at the forefront of the campaign and although I may be oppressed or face stigmatization because of my eating disorder, I am not oppressed because of the shape or size of body. In fact featuring my body in the fight against stigma toward eating disorders is also not appropriate since eating disorders don’t have “a look” (but that’s another topic for another day). Marginalized bodies need more exposure in our media if we ever want to normalize these body types and ultimately ease the internalized body-shaming dialogue we put on ourselves when just one body type is culturally defined as acceptable and beautiful.
We look up to you and you are our role models
At this point I want to say thank you from the bottom of my heart for your incredible acts of courage. To actively love and accept your body in a society that has, bullied, shamed and oppressed you for years is incredible and I admire you so much for this. You have helped to challenge my eating disorder and all the negative thoughts I used to have about what it meant to exist in a larger body. Your voice and your bravery have put so many eating disorder thoughts in their place. I’m inspired every single day with your acts of defiance and courage. Keep. It. Up! The next generation of women (and men) needs you so much it.
For many of us (myself included) the body positive movement was a game changer for our recovery.
Before discovering the body positive movement, my fear of fat was still a huge hurdle in my eating disorder recovery. I had so many harmful and unjustified beliefs of what it would mean to exist in a body that wasn’t thin. I feared my job would be in jeopardy and I feared no one would love me. I also had no idea that I could love my body and be proud of my body while at the same time understand it was simply one aspect of me. In eating disorder recovery I was told to take my focus off of my physical body completely. I was taught that allowing my body’s appearance to bring me joy would give my eating disorder power. And in the beginning stages of my recovery this was true. The body positive movement taught me that it’s OK to admire my body as well as others’ and this will not send me into relapse. The body positive movement also further opened the lines of communication to my body after years of numbing and ignoring its basics needs and physical feelings. The movement challenged my ideas and took my recovery to a completely new level. It gave my recovery fire. It was the body positive movement that empowered my true voice and hit the final nail in the coffin of my eating disorder. It was the body positive movement that gave me the courage to leave a stable job and start my own business. My Instagram feed is full of powerful, body positive women who all proudly exist in a body that faces oppression and hate and yet still demonstrates love toward their bodies and celebrates their bodies. This is f*cking amazing.
You inspired me to speak up about the injustices I saw going on in the fitness world and this in turn solidified my recovery. Without this movement I may still have been oblivious of my thin-privilege and allowing the fitness industry’s fear-of-fat to cloud my choices and work.
We stand with you and want to help others in recovery by spreading your message to our community
If the body positive movement helped me in my recovery I strongly believe it can do the same for others. Is this considered co-opting the movement to help serve those working through their eating disorder recovery because that was not the original intention of the movement? I don’t know. But if it is, then I guess I’m co-opting the movement and I hope you can understand why; it’s not to personally benefit financially, but rather to help others in their recovery find a way to embrace and accept their own physical body while not placing their entire self worth upon it as well as ending a deep rooted fear of fat that can exist well into the years following recovery.
I can reach a different audience that desperately needs you because in recovery one needs all the help one can get. If the message we spread in the name if body positivity is manipulated to the point where it becomes harmful to those on the front lines of the movement please tell us. Most of us are willing to listen and make changes, and again, we are not out to take over the movement. We want to stand behind you, not in front of you. We respect what you have to say even if it’s telling us we have it wrong. Give us a chance to learn and grow into your movement because ultimately it will benefit our recovery as well as others in our community. We want to come to your party and we would love to have a seat at your table.
This leads me to the how
How do I fight to support rather than fight to fight? I was considering putting this into the post but it’s already far too long. So stay tuned for part two coming out soon.
Until then I’d love to hear your feedback on this topic no matter what your experience is with the body positive movement. Send me a message or comment directly on this post or whatever platform you read this.